Saturday, October 8, 2016

The return of micro-lending

The Economist has a feature on the return of micro lending,
In 2015, after examining the results of randomised controlled trials in Bosnia, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Morocco and Mongolia, American researchers questioned whether microlending worked at all. As expected, offering small loans increased business investment. But it had a negligible effect on poor people’s fortunes. Borrowers seemed to cut back on wage work in order to spend more time bent over their sewing machines or running their small, not terribly profitable shops. These days international donors and charities are much more excited about other approaches, including mobile money and “graduation” programmes, which give livestock to indigent people and teach them how to take care of them. As the development caravan rolls away, though, microlending is booming. MIX, which collects data on the industry, estimates that the number of borrowers worldwide grew by 16% between 2014 and 2015, to 130m. The total loan portfolio is now worth about $96 billion. In India, which has more microborrowers than any other country, lending was 64% higher in the second quarter of this year than a year earlier, according to MFIN, a national industry body.
This is worth pausing,
If capturing new clients is essential to success in microlending, creating new loan products is not. “There is zero innovation,” says Ratna Vishwanathan, the head of MFIN. “It’s a vanilla product”. That is a shame because, although small loans are plainly popular and do no economic harm to the average borrower, they could equally plainly do a much better job of helping people become less poor. Like many tiny businesses, Mr Iqbal’s shop swings up and down. He can be extremely busy around Hindu festivals, when people like to shop, but is idle at other times (when your correspondent arrives at his shop, he is napping). In the slowest months, he cuts back spending on himself and his family until he can scrape together enough for the monthly payment. And he knows to take on only as much debt as he can service in the lean season. At this rate, he is no more likely to prosper than he is to default on his loan.
This applies not just for micro-finance, but regular banking itself. As I have blogged earlier, the focus of financial inclusion has so far been confined to enabling access to institutional finance. But, as India's Jan Dhan Yojana program shows, access still leaves us with critical last mile gaps. It may be that poor people, farmers, and small businesses need products that cater to their unique requirements

Unfortunately, we are busy tinkering at the margins,
An experiment in Kolkata by two American researchers, Erica Field and Rohini Pande, found that offering borrowers a grace period of just two months at the beginning of a microloan doubled the rate at which new businesses were created. Borrowers were able to take bigger risks, which brought bigger rewards on average. After three years business profits were 41% higher and household incomes were up by 19.5%. If microlending could routinely deliver results like that, it would still be the height of fashion. IFMR Lead, a research organisation based in India, is now testing an even more flexible loan. In conjunction with Sonata, it is offering a few hundred people microloans with two three-month “holidays”. Borrowers will still have to pay something each month, but much less than usual.
This is unlikely to get us far. In fact, it is more likely with such products that they fall prey to scale dynamics. As (or, If) such types of loans increase, the rigour of screening will necessarily (to keep transaction costs low and arising from the dynamics of a growing business line) come down so as to be commercially viable. Moral hazard can get baked in very quickly. The cost of capital for lenders can rocket upwards. It is one thing to do such loans in small pilots under the watchful eyes of high bandwidth research assistants, but an altogether different thing when scaled up. 

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